Report: Climate change causing energy disruptions

Thursday, July 11, 2013 | 3:41 p.m. CDT
This March 18, 2003, aerial file photo shows the Millstone nuclear power facility in Waterford, Conn. Climate change and extreme weather already are causing disruptions in the U.S. energy supply that are likely to worsen as more intense storms, higher temperatures and more frequent droughts occur, the government says in a new report. The report, released Thursday by the Energy Department, says blackouts and other problems caused by Superstorm Sandy and other extreme weather events are likely to be repeated across the country as an aging energy infrastructure struggles to adapt to rising seas, higher storm surges and increased flooding.

WASHINGTON — Climate change and extreme weather already are causing disruptions in the U.S. energy supply that are likely to worsen as more intense storms, higher temperatures and more frequent droughts occur, the government says in a new report.

The report, released Thursday by the Energy Department, says blackouts and other problems caused by Superstorm Sandy and other extreme weather events are likely to be repeated across the country as an aging energy infrastructure struggles to adapt to rising seas, higher storm surges and increased flooding. A range of energy sources are at risk, from coal-fired power plants to oil wells, hydroelectric dams and nuclear power plants.

Climate-related disasters have already costs tens of billions of dollars, and the report says costs could grow exponentially unless a more comprehensive and accelerated response is adopted.

On the Gulf Coast, for instance, the report cites a study by an energy company and wetland foundation projecting that by 2030, nearly $1 trillion in energy assets in the region will be at risk from rising sea levels and more intense hurricanes. Based on an analysis of hazards, assets and vulnerabilities, the Gulf Coast energy sector faces an average annual loss from climate change and extreme weather of $8 billion in 2030, the report said.

The report urges private companies, governments and research institutions to take action to further understand the risks of climate change and reduce them. The report does not offer immediate recommendations, but says power plants and oil companies should use less water and recycle what they use.

Electricity providers should harden transmission grids and build emergency backup systems, the report says, and operators of hydroelectric dams should improve turbine efficiency. The report also recommends that governments and utilities work together to reduce demand for electricity.

"Water is obviously the big question," said Jonathan Pershing, deputy assistant secretary of energy for climate change policy and technology, who oversaw the report. "In drought you don't have enough water. As seas rise, you have too much."

While the risks from drought, floods and hurricanes are clear, water plays an important role in less obvious ways as well, Pershing said. Both coal-fired and nuclear power plants, for instance, need large volumes of water for cooling. As temperatures rise, that becomes more difficult.

The report cites several examples from 2012, the hottest year in the United States since record-keeping began in 1895:

  • In August, a nuclear power station in Connecticut shut down one reactor because the temperature of the intake cooling water, withdrawn from Long Island Sound, was too high. The two-week shutdown resulted in the loss of 255,000 megawatt-hours of power, worth several million dollars, the report said.
  • In the Midwest, drought and low river water depths disrupted the transportation of commodities, such as petroleum and coal, delivered by barges along the Mississippi River.
  • In California, reduced snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains limited hydroelectric power generation capacity by about 8 percent.

"Costs are already happening and it's getting worse," Pershing said. "We are seeing damages across all parts of the energy sector."

Rising heat in the West will drive a steep increase in demand for air conditioning, which has already forced blackouts and brownouts in some places, the report said. The Energy Department's Argonne National Laboratory found that air conditioning demand in the West will require 34 gigawatts of new electricity generating capacity by 2050, equivalent to the construction of 100 power plants.

The report sends a "significant message about the risks and vulnerabilities" facing the U.S. energy sector, Pershing said. It should provide a blueprint for states and municipalities to consider, along with utilities and other energy providers and even consumers, who can do their part by reducing energy use or seeking alternative forms of energy, he said.

The report is the first of many to be produced across a range of economic sectors as the Obama administration responds to climate change and makes recommendations, Pershing said.

President Barack Obama announced a wide-ranging plan last month to combat global warming. The plan for the first time would put limits on carbon pollution from new and existing power plants as well as boost renewable energy production on federal lands, increase efficiency standards and prepare communities to deal with higher temperatures.


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Mark Foecking July 12, 2013 | 6:03 a.m.

Climate change or no, grid maintenance and upgrading are not keeping pace with the rise in demand for electricity. Unfortunately, most people don't really care about it unless the light doesn't come on when they flip the switch. Therefore, they'll block new power plants and transmission lines and make it more difficult for utilities to provide reliable power. (Hint: large quantities of solar and wind, without energy storage as is currently common, make it more difficult for utilities to provide reliable power).

Obama's climate plan doesn't go nearly far enough in reducing emissions to make a significant difference. No practical plan will. That's why I tend to think we shouldn't even be talking about mitigation, because it will require painful and economically damaging conservation that no politician and few citizens would support. He may as well have done nothing at all.

Whether it's man-made (and I think it quite possible it is) or natural, or some combination of the two, it's going to happen, and we'd better be ready for it. A large part of whether we have enough food in the latter part of this century will have to do with how we adapt.


(Report Comment)
Michael Williams July 12, 2013 | 7:27 a.m.

Food: "True believers" would be buying arable land in Canada and Siberia........

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 12, 2013 | 7:28 a.m.

@ Mark Foecking:

I've alluded to this problem here many times. I have worked and lived (some might not call it living) in a place with a significant population, a viable and expanding array of industry (steel, aluminum, Portland cement) and a government (Socialist, of course)-owned electric power generation system, chronically undersized for the power required. Lousy prior planning, worse current performance (including poor system maintenance).

We had a new high rise apartment, with window air conditioning units, electric kitchen appliances (except no dishwasher), washer, electric dryer, electric water heater, and an electric elevator to reach our designated floor. They all worked - WHEN THERE WAS ELECTRICITY AVAILABLE TO POWER THEM.

Now, imagine trying to operate a FACTORY, full of electrically-powered machinery and industrial combustion systems whose operation depends on electricity as well as fuel. Every afternoon, when the tropical heat spiked and the city's air conditioners, home and commercial, were running full blast, the power system crashed!

Rather than attempt running the factory from morning to night, we ran it from night to morning. That meant trying to sleep during the heat of the day.

The situation was getting worse by the month, because new housing and new factories were under construction, but the government, which had planned the industrial complex, was several years behind the energy curve, at several of its cities.

We had a swimming pool at ground level at the apartment. It was slightly larger than a postage stamp, but offered respite from our sweltering apartment during the day. Around us they were building more high rise apartments and had pitched odds and ends of construction materials into a makeshift dump. Unfortunaetly, some local residents were dumping garbage into the construction materials, and RATS were running around. The government hadn't addressed the rat problem, but neighborhood youths, using clubs made of scrap lumber, were doing a pretty good job. THE YOUTHS WERE UNDOUBTEDLY NASCENT CAPITALISTS. :)

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Mark Foecking July 12, 2013 | 10:39 a.m.


Oh, yeah, there's a lot of land up there, and I'm sure as crops drift north, that more of it will be used for food. I'm not sure it will yield as well, for reasons of day length and solar intensity, and the increased possibility of freezes during the growing season. Plus we'll likely have 10 or 11 billion humans to feed by that time, as well as perhaps a lot of land being used for biofuels.

Cross breeding and genetic engineering will help. But that may hit the wall of diminishing returns also. Even C4 plants aren't that efficient at turning sun, CO2, and NPK into biomass (and you can't eat Johnson grass or miscanthus).

I just wish a lot of people would acknowledge the world has limits and perhaps it's safer to not push the envelope.


Inadequate grid capacity is a problem all through the developing world, as you know. It's the whole "If the light comes on when I flip the switch, I don't really care what they have to do to make that happen" thing. Unfortunately, whether it happens due to poor planning or NIMBY/enviromental obstructionism, you can only take as many megawatts out as you're generating at the moment. Not enough megawatts generated, and nobody has any lights (or anything else electrical).

I read articles on "alternative" websites where people advocate small scale, local wind and solar installations ("microgrids") instead of large generators and transmission lines for places that are currently unelectrified (parts of Africa and Asia, for example). That's fine as long as you only want to run some lights, perhaps a little communal cold storage, and charge mobile phones. As someone who has designed and built a system to power a small, efficient modern house, I can say with some authority that solar and wind aren't going to keep up with modernization in some of these areas. There's a lot to be said for having at least a modest central generating capacity and the ability to distribute it where needed.


(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 12, 2013 | 12:25 p.m.

@ Mark Foecking:

I neglected to mention two items in my prior "essay":

1- In the instance I cited the electricity was generated by hydro. That's one reason for the aluminum production, which requires large amounts of electricity; also, steel, made by the electric arc furnace (EAF) method, consumes many amps.

2- When I relate this story, someone asks why businesses don't all have standby generators. Some, such as the hospital, obviously HAVE to, but aside from the capacity needed, cost of equipment, fuel cost, etc. what are we producing as exhaust when we operate those generators? Answer: carbon dioxide + if the fuel is diesel, some nasty long chain hydrocarbons.

In spite of the gravity of the energy and carbon dioxide situations I find some things humorous: how can adults in our supposed advanced age be so technically ignorant?

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